The Florida Panthers have made the playoffs just twice in the last 16 years. In an effort to make the postseason this year, the Panthers added veterans Dany Heatley and Jaromir Jagr at the trade deadline. But if the Panthers are going to become a playoff contender on an annual basis, it is the youngsters coming up through their system that need to make a difference in the coming years.
General Manager Dale Tallon took over in Florida in May 2010 with a vow to make South Florida a more difficult trip for opposing teams. While some of the players he has brought in have failed to reach their potential, a number of Tallon draft picks are beginning to make their mark. Frequently picking early, the Panthers were able to add players like Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and 2014 first overall pick Aaron Ekblad who went directly to the NHL club.
There are eight players 22 years old or younger already seeing time with the NHL club this year, with Barkov, Ekblad and forward Brandon Pirri all having “graduated” as per Hockey’s Future standards. As a result, the Panthers’ Top 20 looks thinner than it otherwise might.
1. (2) Mike Matheson, D, 7.5 B
Drafted 1st round, 23rd overall, 2012
Matheson has had to shoulder the load at Boston College after the team lost several key players to graduation and other commitments. Though his statistics have not been impressive, the experience handling adversity in a larger role should benefit Matheson in the long run. He has played a much more disciplined game in his junior season and has been relied upon in all situations. After struggling early in the year, the Eagles again finished the season as one of the top teams in Hockey East and could make some noise in the post-season.
2. (8) Ian McCoshen, D, 7.5 B
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2013
McCoshen, a teammate of Matheson’s at Boston College, has been another big part of the Eagles’ turnaround this season. Paired with freshman Noah Hanifan, who is expected to be one of the top draft picks in the 2015 NHL Draft, McCoshen has been effective in his own zone and chipped in offensively with six goals—most amongst BC defensemen. McCoshen and Hanifan were also partners for the USA U20 team at the 2015 World Juniors.
One of the bigger prospects in the Panthers’ system (6’3″, 205), McCoshen has a physical edge to his game. He should fit in well with current Florida defensemen Eric Gudbranson and Ekblad.
3. (7) Rocco Grimaldi, C, 8.0 C
Drafted 2nd round, 33rd overall, 2011
Grimaldi is in his first season of pro hockey after a successful three-year college career at the University of North Dakota. He spent seven games with the Panthers in November, scoring his first career goal on November 22nd in his final game before being returned to Florida AHL affiliate San Antonio. In terms of his NHL potential, questions will always exist about his ability to compete at a high level given his diminutive stature. What cannot be questioned is his speed, stick handling, and passing skills. In 50 AHL games he is among the leading scorers for the Rampage, along with AHL veterans Bobby Butler, Mark Mancari and Brett Olson.
4. (4) Vince Trocheck, C, 7.0 B
Drafted 3rd round, 64th overall, 2011
Trocheck has shuffled between the Florida and San Antonio as a 21-year-old in his second pro season. He can be deployed in a variety of roles; as a scorer, forechecker and penalty killer, and as a defensive forward. Trocheck has scored at a near point-per-game pace with the Rampage, but has fulfilled a two-way role for Florida behind leading scorers Nick Bjugstad and Barkov. In the long-term he should be a more consistent scorer as he matures physically and becomes more accustomed to the NHL game.
5. (6) Alex Petrovic, D, 7.0 B
Drafted 2nd round, 36th overall, 2010
Petrovic appears to be on the verge of cracking into the Florida defense corps in his third pro season—skating in 21 games after being recalled from AHL affiliate San Antonio in January 2015. Having just turned 23-years-old, he has provided both a hard physical edge and some scoring from the back end for the Rampage in each of his three AHL seasons—with a career-high 19 points in 39 games this season. Petrovic’s combination of size and finesse suggest he can be an effective second or third-pairing defenseman with Florida.
6. (19) Jayce Hawryluk, C, 7.5 C
Drafted 2nd round, 32nd overall, 2014
Hawryluk is another player whose small stature has caused concern about whether his hard-charging playing style will translate over to the next level or not. While those questions will answer themselves down the road, Hawryluk is having another big year with the Brandon Wheat Kings in his third WHL season—also representing the league in the annual Subway Series against Russia. In addition to his scoring and playmaking talents, Hawryluk is not afraid to play in the small areas and take a hit to make a play as opposed to avoiding contact.
7. (14) Zach Hyman, RW, 7.0 C
Drafted 5th round, 123rd overall, 2010
Hyman has had his share of detractors since posting huge totals in the OJHL (Jr. A), but the numbers he is putting up for the Michigan Wolverines in 2014-15 appears to be more than just easy senior-year points. An assistant captain, Hyman has led through his actions—pacing the Wolverines in goals and assists, and imposing himself physically in all three zones. How well his game will translate to the NHL level remains to be seen, but if nothing else Hyman should receive a contract offer when his college season ends. He could push for a roster spot in training camp this September.
8. (10) Quinton Howden, LW, 7.0 C
Drafted 1st round, 25th overall, 2010
Howden has endured a challenging third pro season—missing the bulk of the year due to a wrist injury and then a fractured jaw—but he continues to be one of the top playmaking forwards in the system. Howden was one of the first players mentioned in trade rumors when teams were looking to unload veterans, but Tallon rebuked all offers for the 23-year-old. Howden’s skating ability and high level of passing and stick handling skill could complement Florida forwards like Bjugstad, Barkov, and Jonathan Huberdeau nicely. Howden has 11 assists in 16 games with San Antonio this season.
9. (11) Kyle Rau, C, 7.0 C
Drafted 3rd round, 91st overall, 2011
Rau, like Hyman, returned to his college team for his senior season. Among the leading scorers for the University of Minnesota, he is tied with Travis Boyd (Washington) for second on the team with 34 points heading into the Big Ten conference tournament. Another undersized but highly-skilled forward with speed to burn in the offensive zone, Rau will face many of the same obstacles as Grimaldi. Rau will need time at the AHL level to adjust from the college game to the pro level, but he has the potential to be an effective scorer one day.
10. (12) Juho Lammikko, LW, 7.0 C
Drafted 3rd round, 65th overall, 2014
Lamikko is playing for the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs this season after appearing in 20 games for Liiga’s Assat Pori in his native Finland in 2013-14. He was on Finland’s pre-tournament roster for the U20 World Junior championship as an 18-year-old, but was the final player cut. With the Frontenacs he has been an effective two-way forward and has frequently been called upon to shut down the opposing team’s top line. His combination of offensive skills and awareness suggest he can be valuable in a second or third line role, capable of playing in any situation.
11. (9) MacKenzie Weegar, D, 7.0 C
Drafted 7th round, 206th overall, 2013
Weegar is the epitome of a late bloomer; he was drafted by the Panthers in 2013 after one season of major junior hockey with Halifax as an 18-year-old. Weegar’s offensive ability from the blue line is his calling card, and despite his lack of height, is a thick player who hits with force. Signed to an entry-level contract by the Panthers last spring following the QMJHL playoffs, Weegar has spent most of his first pro season with San Antonio, and briefly skated for the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones. In the long-term, his skill set suggests he would be ideal running the power play and could provide a boost of offense from the back end.
12. (15) Jonathan Racine, D, 6.0 B
Drafted 3rd round, 87th overall, 2011
Racine plays a relatively honest game that does not have a lot of complexity to it. He is a big, strong defensive defenseman who uses his long reach and intense disposition to discourage or prevent scoring chances. Racine has a limited game in terms of offensive tools—he has not scored a goal in his first 104 professional games—but he will throw big hits and fight to protect his teammates or change the momentum of a game. Racine has spent the entire 2014-15 season with San Antonio after appearing in one game with the Panthers last season. He could push for one of the final defense spots with the Panthers in training camp next season.
13. (NR) Michael Downing, D, 6.5 C
Drafted 2nd round, 38th overall, 2011
Named to the Big Ten all-rookie team following his freshman season at Michigan, Downing has played with senior Brennan Serville (Winnipeg) on the top pairing for the Wolverines as a sophomore. His combination of size, skating ability, and aggressiveness suggest that Downing can be a solid NHL defenseman one day. The Canton, Michigan native has also benefitted from the tutelage of long-time NHL defenseman and former Wolverine Mike Komisarek, who is a volunteer assistant coach with long-time Michigan head coach Red Berenson’s staff this year.
14. (13) Sam Brittain, G, 6.5 C
Drafted 4th round, 92nd overall, 2010
Historically, Florida has not obtained their starting goaltenders from the draft, and Brittain does not appear likely to change that trend. Still, his play—both at the University of Denver and in his first pro hockey season this winter—suggests that he will one day play at the NHL level. Recalled recently as an emergency backup, it is unlikely that he will get a start before he is sent back down. Brittain has had a decent season splitting the goaltending duties for the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones with minor league veteran Rob Madore. More will be known about his long-term potential if he can earn a spot with San Antonio next season.
Knight appeared in two NHL games with the Flames this season, but has spent most of the year in the AHL—playing 22 games with affiliate Adirondack before the trade that brought him back to the Panthers organization, who had originally drafted Knight in 2009. Knight has been a solid player at the AHL level in his first two pro seasons and his awareness in all three zones suggests he can play a lower line role while chipping in offensively in the NHL in the future. He had 13 points in his first 21 games with the Rampage.
16. (NR) Yaroslav Kosov, RW, 7.0 D
Drafted 5th round, 124th overall, 2011
Kosov is a bit of a wild card in the Panthers prospect group. His combination of size, skating ability, and technical skills compare favorably to most of the players currently in the Florida pipeline, but he has yet to play in North America. After playing a limited role with KHL champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk last season, he is again skating for the Mike Keenan-coached squad this year. Kosov made his first appearance with the Russian national team during the fall, skating in the Karjala Cup tournament in Finland. His combination of physical play, two-way awareness, and competitiveness in all three zones should fit in well with the young core group in Florida.
17. (20) Michael Houser, G, 7.0 D
Signed as a free agent, July 2012
Houser is currently sharing time with former NHL goalie Dan Ellis in San Antonio, who appear to be headed to the playoffs for just the fourth time in the club’s 13-year history. Scouts and personnel have often dismissed Houser due to his lack of size and unorthodox play, but he has consistently made saves and kept his team in the game at every level at which he’s played thus far. Depending on how the Panthers decide to address their goaltending needs, he could challenge for a backup spot in Florida as soon as next fall.
18. (NR) Evan Cowley, G, 7.0 D
Drafted 4th round, 92nd overall, 2013
Cowley has split time with freshman Tanner Jaillet in goal for the Pioneers in 2014-15. Both Cowley and Jaillet have put up big numbers playing on a Denver team that was one of the nation’s best during the regular season. The Pioneers finished fourth in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and allowed 83 goals in 34 games heading into the NCHC tournament. Predicting a goaltender’s long-term fate is always difficult, but Cowley’s prototypical NHL size and potential for further development upside suggest that he still has upside.
19. (18) Logan Shaw, RW, 6.0 C
Drafted 3rd round, 76th overall, 2011
Shaw has made significant progress with San Antonio in his second pro season. With the ideal size of an NHL winger and the willingness to play in high traffic areas he could provide nice depth to the Panthers forward corps if he continues to develop at his present rate. Though he is unlikely to match the two 26-goal seasons he had during his junior career, Shaw is fourth on the Rampage with 13 goals. At the same time, he plays a solid positional game in his own end of the ice.
20. (16) Connor Brickley, LW, 6.0 C
Drafted 2nd round, 46th overall, 2008
Brickley is in his first pro season with San Antonio. The fact that he is still in the Panthers’ prospect pool is a testament to his determination and perseverance after an injury-filled college career at the University of Vermont. He is tied with fourth-year pro Garrett Wilson for third on the Rampage with 19 goals—the most he has scored in a season since his final season of junior hockey with Des Moines in 2009-10. Brickley has appeared in a career-high 56 games for San Antonio and has played a responsible game in all areas of the rink, providing a physical element to the Rampage lineup.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12